I’ve been listening to the Long Now lecture series for some time now and most are very good indeed. This one was by Steven Johnson on “The Long Zoom” (summary here, audio here).

The lecture covered some of the topics due to be discussed in Mr Johnson’s next book. He is interested in how scientific and other models which work on different scales fit together. The first half of the lecture was about his book The Ghost Map which describes the insights that lead to the elimination of cholera from London in the 19th century. This involved the concepts of a microscopic disease, its spread in water and then from water to people – each level using a different model to explain what was happening at that scale.

The second half of the lecture is about his ideas of applying “long zoom” thinking to common culture such as TV. He starts off by re-iterating some of what he said in Everything Bad is Good for You – namely that a lot of popular culture, such as computer games and television, actually stands a good chance of making you smarter rather than everything relentlessly being dumbed down as is often said. Obviously there is a market for both sections but a lot of doomsayers state that everything is slowly getting more stupid.

As an example he talks a bit about Lost. He starts off by saying that it hasn’t been that long since TV had a different long term TV show about people being trapped on a mysterious island but Lost is hardly Gilligan’s Island. It’s noted that Lost works on a huge number of levels from personal character threads, many long term mysteries, geography – even metaphysical. Viewers are expected to exercise significant amounts of brainpower to keep up with the show.

Mr Johnson points out that a good model for understanding why things such as Lost are popular is to consider dopamine usage in the goal seeking centers of the brain. One of the uses of this critical neurochemical (analogous to cocaine) is as a “pleasure response” to solving previously defined goals (such as “find food”). TV shows, computer games and books that continually set goals for the viewer to solve reward them with such pleasure responses and therefore are quite literally addictive.

As a side-statement to this Mr Johnson states that the idea of “story based” computer games will never be as sucsessful as goal based ones as they simply don’t reward the players as much for playing. Players are prepared to put up with and in a lot of cases actually seek games of high complexity such as World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs. It is important however, in order to hold the player for maximum addictiveness, that the level of play is in what Mr Johnson calls a player’s Regime of Competence where gameplay is neither too easy (boring – goals too easy to kick off pleasure response) or too difficult (goals never reached). Computer games being the only interactive media to date (as opposed to books or TV) that can constantly tailor themselves to remain in the sweet spot.

Returning to TV Mr Johnson quoted a TV exec from the 70s who said “There are only 3 networks so start off with 30% of the viewers and then all we need to do is not scare off anyone else and the rest will come to us. We need to be the least offensive network on the air.” If you exchange “offensive” for “complex” then the situation, in many cases, is completely reversed. Mr Johnson puts a high proportion of the reason for this change down to technology. In the early to mid 70s shows had to be as simple as possible as no-one had a VCR and so show re-watching was impossible. Following the advent of mass syndication, VCRs, DVDs, iTunes download, etc it is now much more important for a network to produce shows like Lost that stand re-watching many times so sales of such secondary showings can be made.

Moving on to literature he spoke a bit about Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History by Franco Moretti. This sounds like an extremely interesting book which uses the aforementioned methods to document the lives of literary genres. For example in the 18th and 19th centuries there were many more genres than people expect but only 10 or so popular at any one time (very similar to now). Their creation, change and eventual death is very akin to evolution. Another thing discussed in the book is the evolution of literary devices. One example that Mr Johnson goes into is detective fiction. It took some time before authors realised that the most addictive stories are those that have just enough clues for the reader to work out the plot before the end but still be hard enough to make them work for it – and therefore kick off the dopamine pleasure response.

Returning to the theme of The Long Zoom Mr Johnson says that he would be very interested in neuroscience studies of people undergoing these pleasure seeking scenarios while being exposed to these media. Another potential example of work on different scales joining up.

Lastly, for those who haven’t already seen it I have to point you to Powers of Ten which Mr Johnson referred to near the end of the lecture in relation to Spore (which I’m disappointed to learn may now not be out till 2009) :

For those who appreciate that I’ll close with one of my all time favorite comic strips. The truly mind bending Powers of One.